Uncertainty Over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Mental Health in Eligible Adults and Their Children

Type: Poster Presentation
Date: August 2020


Alex Bonilla, Lynsie Ranker, Atheendar Venkataramani, and Leah Zallman. “Uncertainty over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Mental Health in Eligible Adults and Their Children”, presented at the Academy Health Annual Research Meeting 2020 (poster), virtual.


Research Objective: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has led to economic, educational, and mental health gains for recipients and their children. The summer of 2015 ushered in a period of uncertainty over the future of DACA when then candidate-Trump announced his intention to rescind DACA. Thus, we seek to examine whether uncertainty over the future of the DACA program (2015-2018) eroded the mental health benefits seen during a period of relative certainty over the program (2012-mid-2015) for DACA-eligible individuals and their children.

Study Design: We used the National Health Interview Survey for the period 2012-2018 and a difference-in-difference analysis, adjusting for age, sex, and census region, to conduct the first national examination of changes in mental health status for DACA-eligible individuals and their children after uncertainty began in 2015. We considered June 2012 (when DACA began) through May 2015 to be a period of certainty and compared this to June 2015 through December 2018. Sensitivity analyses using July 2016, the date of Donald Trump’s Republican nomination, yielded similar results. Our primary outcomes were the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire symptoms of being worried and emotional difficulties among children and the Kessler 6 scale among adults.

Population Studied: We identified non-citizen, Hispanic adults aged 19-50 and their children. We compared changes in mental health among adults who met DACA eligibility criteria and their children before and after the uncertainty period with comparison groups of adults and children who did not satisfy DACA eligibility criteria. Our sample included 2824 adults and 2628 children, including 819 DACA-eligible adults and 502 children of DACA-eligible parents.

Principal Findings: Children of DACA-eligible parents experienced a 36.4% increase in symptoms of worry (12.1% [95%CI 7.7, 16.5] to 16.5% [95%CI 11.0, 22.0]) versus an 11.0% increase among children of DACA-ineligible parents (17.2% [95%CI 14.9, 19.5] to 19.1% [95%CI 16.0, 22.2] adjusted p-value= 0.58). Emotional difficulty increased by 43.3% (from 12.7% [95%CI 8.1, 17.3] to 18.2% [95%CI 12.8, 23.6]) among children of DACA-eligible parents versus 23.6% among children of DACA-ineligible parents (10.6% [95%CI 8.6, 12.5] to 13.1% [95%CI 10.5, 15.8] adjusted p-value= 0.61). Moderate psychological distress increased by 18.1% among DACA- eligible adults (16.6% [95%CI 12.6, 20.5] to 19.6% [95%CI 15.1, 24.2]) with little change among DACA-ineligible adults (16.2% [95%CI 14.0, 18.4] to 16.1% [95%CI 13.0, 19.2] adjusted p- value=0.39).

Conclusions: Although DACA-eligible individuals and their children experienced a greater increase in mental distress across all measures compared to comparison populations, these differences did not reach statistical significance. Nonetheless, our findings are consistent with a growing body of evidence suggesting uncertainty over DACA may undermine mental health benefits.

Implications for Policy or Practice: Public health, health care, and educational systems should advance systems to identify and address psychological distress among DACA-eligible individuals and their children.